It’s set up for a classic.
The Premier League’s two best teams going head-to-head. Stakes high, stage set. All eyes on the Etihad this Thursday.
Manchester City and Liverpool have produced some memorable clashes in recent times, and this promises to be another.
For the home side, the champions, it is the chance to rein in the challengers, who are threatening to cut loose at the top of the Premier League. For Liverpool, the idea of securing a 10th straight league win is seductive. Win at the Etihad, and they will be 10 points clear of Pep Guardiola’s side having played them home and away.
“Of course it's a huge game,” says Andy Robertson, who surely has no equals right now when it comes to Premier League full-backs. “If we win then we're 10 points clear of them and of course that's huge.
“But on the flip side they'll be thinking they can close the gap to four points which isn’t as big. Look it's a massive game, of course it is. It's two good teams going at it and we look forward to it.”
City and Liverpool met four times in 2018, with Jurgen Klopp’s side winning three and the other, at Anfield back in October, ending goalless.
The Reds arrive into the game top of the table, unbeaten in 21 league contests stretching back to May and with the division’s meanest defence behind them. In 20 matches, Robertson and Co. have conceded just eight times.
It’s a remarkable record, but there are lessons from recent history for Liverpool to learn from. It was they, after all, who ended a similarly impressive run from City last January, beating them 4-3 at Anfield just as Guardiola’s side were being talked about as ‘invincibles’.
Liverpool, of course, went on to beat City home and away in the Champions League quarter-finals, demolishing the eventual league champions with swift, energetic, attacking football.
The most recent meeting, though, was rather different, with the sides playing out a cagey affair at Anfield. City may have won it, but missed a late penalty through Riyad Mahrez.
A draw this time would suit Liverpool, who would remain seven clear of City – and at least seven ahead of Tottenham, who play Cardiff on New Year’s Day. It promises to be a fascinating tactical tussle.
“We play the way that the game tells us to play,” says Robertson. “Arsenal were quite open and we took advantage of that.
“The way we played was attacking and we scored the goals. In any game you can play like that, but obviously every game is different and we need to wait and see how the game is going to be.
“The difference in the Champions League [second leg] game is they [City] obviously had to win by four goals or whatever so they had to come out. They only need to win by one on Thursday.
“Look they're a fantastic team, a very experienced team and they've been in this position before. They've won the title. It's something that we've never had. They're probably more experienced than us in this position but we look forward to it.
“We're in a good moment just now and they'll be looking to bounce back and then go full throttle into us. We'll be wary of that but we need to be at our best and if we can, we can cause any team problems.”
They certainly caused Arsenal problems last time out. Despite the shock of going 1-0 down – the first time they had trailed at Anfield in the league in 364 days – Klopp’s team responded in style to win 5-1. “One of our best performances of the season,” Robertson says.
No wonder there is talk, tentative though it is, of a first league title since 1990. Liverpool, so far, have shown remarkable strength and precious few weaknesses. They look, as City did last season, like a team that opponents fear.
“You need to ask other teams about that!” smiles Robertson. “We spoke about City last season and I'm sure every other team. did. They were very hard to beat. Of course we did it here in the league and the Champions League but in the league, not many people could touch them.
“But the thing is, they completed it and they've got their winners' medal and the trophy. Just now, we have nothing and that's why at the end of the season, hopefully we can talk about it.”
He adds: “Of course we hope that we win it but we know how hard it is and we know two teams, probably even more, are right behind us and causing us all sorts of problems. We know they'll be right on our tails so we keep our feet on the ground and hopefully by then we'll be celebrating. But we take it game by game.”
His words echo his manager’s. Klopp has been keen to squash talk of the title in his pre and post-match press conferences, insisting that the next challenge is always the greatest challenge.
His players, though, appear to be relishing their time on top of the pile. Pressure? They don’t seem to be feeling it right now.
“I think there is pressure always playing for this club,” says Robertson. “Fans demand it and we demand it so in terms of different pressures, we are top of the league and we need to keep on going.
“To come through December with the fixtures we had unscathed is a good achievement but nothing is achieved in December so we kick on now and go into 2019 full of momentum and it is about using that properly and if we can, hopefully it is a good year for us all.”